One city, three matches, one day
The locals sometimes don't realise it, but with three teams based in the capital Delhi is the place to be for a cricket fan in winter.
You can take your pick: a Delhi or Railways game, or perhaps a Services one. If you know the place, you can shuttle between three matches in a day. If you don't want to miss any action, you can hope for a round like the one that concluded this week, when Delhi and Orissa finished their game in two days, allowing the focus to shift to the other matches.
Feroz Shah Kotla was my first stop for two reasons: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Ishant Sharma had returned to help Delhi out of the rut they found themselves in. Also, the track that was laid out, a green carpet because Delhi desperately need an outright win, promised a lot of action.
The Kotla could be a beautiful ground. It's located in the walled citadel of the emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq, with fortified gates, barbican towers, and open spaces all around. But for years the stadium has been neglected by administrators. When they recently rebuilt it, they got it even more wrong. The massively ugly concrete Jaypee Stand (named after a local cement manufacturer) has a feel of the industrial areas on the outskirts of Delhi rather than the peaceful immediate surroundings. During international matches, supremely vulgar advertisements adorn the concrete, for, among other products, indigestion pills and mouth freshener - the ads for the latter featuring lots of cleavage. The players' balcony is situated at extra cover. An open toilet welcomes one at the point beyond which police won't let vehicles pass.
It's different during a Ranji match. There are no advertisements, no police, and at least no users of the toilet. The press box does not function during this game because the scorers want to sit in the sun.
The first day of the match happens to be election day in Delhi. That's close to 20 fewer votes cast: everyone in the Delhi team is eligible to vote - apart from Pradeep Sangwan, perhaps, who turned 18 only a month ago. Polling day is a holiday, so there is quite a first-day crowd - that's about 200 people. Some are even able to sit on the grass between the boundary rope and the boundary boards. It's the closest one can get to watching cricket from grass banks in India. With the winter sun, and tea, it is quite an experience.
The scoreboard operator at the Kotla sits in the scoreboard, a wheeled unit, which affords him some shelter as he goes about his work, watching the game from the window-like slots for the scores.
Sunil Dev, the secretary of the sports committee that runs Delhi cricket, is a businessman who always makes time to watch Delhi play. On this pitch, where if you blink you miss a wicket, he gets restive if a wicket doesn't fall for ten minutes - when Delhi are fielding that is. He doesn't rest easy until Ishant Sharma has clean-bowled Orissa's No. 11, Dhiraj Singh, just after tea on the second day to get Delhi a 52-run win. That after Delhi managed 78 in the first innings.
|The transition is seamless: from the crowd outside New Delhi railway to ticket touts to shops selling fake sunglasses to cheap hotels to other frauds looking for tourists heading to the Karnail Singh stadium|
The early finish takes me to my next stop, the Karnail Singh Stadium, about seven kilometres away, next to the New Delhi railway station. Having lived in Delhi, I never imagined there could be a first-class ground just outside the chaos of the rail station. The transition is seamless: from the station crowd to ticket touts to shops selling fake sunglasses to cheap hotels to other frauds looking for tourists heading to the stadium.
At the stadium what you see is what you get, unlike at the other establishments on the road. It is a humble ground, but quaint, and almost beautiful. It is a multi-sport venue and there are trees around the ground, broken up by the boxing hall, the badminton hall and the gymnasium. Akhil Kumar, the maverick boxer who almost won India a medal at the Beijing Olympics, is training at the ground. His physio, Heath Matthews, is a cricket buff. Is boxing the tougher sport? Matthews points out how, in comparison to cricket, boxing bouts, in airconditioned indoor rings, finish in half an hour.
When UP are in town, quaintness takes a back seat. At 8.45am loud music blares just outside their dressing room. At the end of the match I realise that the music system is Praveen Kumar's: he carries it back. Ferociously funny leg-pulling - most of it unprintable - is the UP players' favourite pastime, and they treat team-mates and opponents alike to it.
The scoreboard at the Karnail Singh is the old wooden green-boards type, with nails to hang the score digits on - also wooden. The operator sits near the board and gets up to change scores every time a run is scored, unlike at some grounds where scores on manual boards change in multiples of ten. Diwan Singh has been doing the job here for close to 30 years. He gave up a good bank job to work as an announcer with the Railways so he could get days off to watch cricket. He remembers the celebrations here in 2001-02 when Railways won the Ranji Trophy - avenging their loss to Baroda in the final the previous season. He distributed sweets worth Rs 2000 that day. He makes Rs 100 a day managing the scoreboard.
The proceedings are slow, with Yere Goud playing a typically painstaking innings to save the follow-on. Diwan will recover by watching some Australian domestic Twenty20 at home. "I watch just about any cricket on TV."
A Railways fanatic, a fixture of sorts at the ground, wants to sit near the players, almost each of whom he knows. Security doesn't let him in, but he tries to run through. The officials catch him and start beating him up. Maninder Singh, who happens to be there, intervenes, saves the young man, embraces him, and convinces him that nobody is allowed near the players. "See, they all know me," the fan, who wears a Railways tracksuit, boasts to the security men.
On the final day UP give themselves close to three sessions to bowl Railways out. It seems like too much time when Railways slip to 33 for 6 quickly. The probability of a facile result gives me time to move on to the third match, at the faraway Air Force Station, where no journalist goes. The reasons are not tough to find: on my way, I am made to divert from the direct route, which is off limits to the press because it passes through a defence area. Even if one manages to get to the ground, there is no conveyance back.
When I finally reach the ground, less than a kilometre from the airport, I see, for the first time, a first-class match not being watched by anybody. Not a single party not directly involved with the teams. The only two "spectators" are from Modern Office Systems, the company contracted to move the cameras (for the umpire review), the laptops and computers required, and to look after the power requirements at the ground. These two gentlemen are seen at the Kotla too. They say they wouldn't come to watch the game at the Palam A Stadium if it wasn't part of their job, but they are interested enough in cricket to remember the warm-up game South Africa played here before the 1996 World Cup - about the only remotely high-profile game at the ground.
It is a scenic ground, with plenty of trees about, but the frequent noise of planes taking off spoils things a bit. The only other problem is the "A" in the name. It means there is a "B" ground too, right next to A. There are no boundaries between the two, so midwicket is where you want a fielder all the time. If the ball goes through there, there's no stopping it from going as far as it can on its momentum.
Services have four wickets left, and have to bat out two sessions to draw and get on the board this season. Madhya Pradesh have controlled the game throughout, but on a benign pitch they can't eke out a result. Jasvir Singh scores a four-and-a-half hour unbeaten century to take Services home.
A call to another journalist at the Karnail Singh tells me I have to rush back. Mahesh Rawat and Sanjay Bangar have got a partnership going, and the game there seems headed towards a thrilling draw. When I get there Suresh Raina pulls off a stunning catch to dismiss Rawat - who has scored 80 despite viral fever - and bring UP back into the game. That's as far as they get, though: led by the broad bat of Bangar, and a courageous Anureet Singh, playing in his first season, Railways survive the remaining 47 minutes. Bangar has batted through the 87 overs of the innings for 70 runs and a point.
UP are disappointed they haven't slammed the door shut. Five minutes later, though, loud Punjabi music emanates from their dressing room. That's how they play their cricket. It is a good note on which to end a satisfying week of cricket.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo